As if greater Heights weren't already the envy of other neighborhoods when it comes to new, hot restaurants, eagerly anticipated Morningstar opens at 7 a.m. today. The cafe is at 4721 North Main in the same center as Foreign Correspondents Thai restaurant and Canard cocktail bar.
The initial roster of doughnut flavors includes uji matcha; caramel frost; triple raspberry cake (with raspberry cake, frosting and “dust”); honey glazed; lemon curd-filled with salted caramel frosting; pomegranate-cream filled; and what co-owner David Buehrer is affectionately calling the “cop doughnut.” The yeast doughnut is liberally coated with cinnamon and palm sugar, and a cup of black coffee alongside is practically required.
Morningstar reunites Buehrer, also of Greenway Coffee & Tea and Blacksmith (from the Clumsy Butcher group), with his former boss, Sam Phan, whom Buehrer calls “the doughnut Jedi.” Phan owns Donald’s Donuts and other shops around Houston. Buehrer credits Phan with teaching him how to make excellent ones of both the yeasty and cake varieties while Buehrer was still in high school.
That knowledge has now also been passed to Carlos Ballon. He was a familiar face at Anvil Bar & Refuge for years, but is now general manager of Morningstar. Buehrer's partner Ecky Prabanto is taking on some of the behind-the-scenes management tasks.
“I build doughnut shops and sell them, and I get tired of the regular ones,” said Phan. “[Morningstar] is the next-generation doughnut shop. I really like this. This is so different than any other shop.” The differentiation starts with the ingredients and how the doughnuts are made. “We make everything from scratch,” said Buehrer. “That’s the whole point, right?” He says that the ingredients used are very high quality as well. "They're all fried in coconut oil," he explained. "Most shops use hydrogenated vegetable shortening, which we didn't want to have anything to do with." Other ingredients include Promised Land dairy products, unbleached sugar from Wholesome Sweeteners in Sugar Land, and unbromated and unbleached wheat flour (potassium bromate is often added to flour to create stronger, whiter dough, and is classified as a carcinogen).
There are other aspects that qualify Morningstar as a “next-generation” doughnut shop. The daring salted lime and chile pineapple fritter is definitely not old-school. Actually, there’s not much on the menu that is. “This is what I envision cafes in 2016 moving onward to be like,” said Buehrer. Part of that vision includes finally giving tea its proper due right alongside coffee and espresso. There’s a whole menu board of Camellia sinensis, the plant that “makes tea tea” and that is to be distinguished from other flowers and plants treated like tea, such as chamomile and peppermint.
In fact, there’s a whole menu board dedicated to matcha and alternative “milks.” Morningstar makes its own almond milk, and condensed soy milk is used in a matcha take on café sua da, or Vietnamese iced coffee. Buehrer thinks that matcha is the tea equivalent of espresso. “It is prepared in a way that makes its concentration similar to espresso, but it’s green tea. It tastes like green tea and feels like green tea,” he said. The “ceremony” espresso and “stout” uses the highest quality matcha. A matcha float includes passion fruit and guava sorbet from Cloud 10 Creamery.
Of course, espresso lovers need not fear; the same alternative milks are available for coffee drinks as well. Among the highlights is a single-origin espresso served with fritter “debris” on the side. (It’s essentially like getting a little sweet dumpling or doughnut hole on the side.) “The barista will know the flavor profile of the fritter and pull a single-origin espresso to match,” explained Buehrer. “It’s geeky espresso stuff.”
Morningstar is offering much, much more to eat besides doughnuts. Other dish categories include “cereal,” “rice” and “brunch,” and there are a whole lot of savory items to get excited about. These include kolaches filled with smoked meat from Feges Barbecue, and a revival of the roasted potatoes with herbs and gochujang that were once served at a Moneycat brunch pop-up. Other offerings include quiche, falafel, Korean-style beef with fried eggs and a salad topped with Chinese-style shaking beef. By next week, there will also be a quiche that uses cheese sourced from Houston Dairymaids.
Buehrer knows from his experience at Blacksmith that there’s a big demand for biscuit sandwiches, and while the ones at Morningstar are different, he says he’s “got the biscuit game on lockdown” there. One holds layers of uncured bacon, egg and cheddar, and another is filled with sambal, honey butter and chicken.
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Buehrer is especially obsessed with the rice dishes, which he was inspired by when visiting the West Coast. There are two savory versions and one sweet, a black rice with coconut milk. These can be eaten for either breakfast or lunch. Of the savory dishes, one is crispy rice with kibbeh (a type of seasoned ground beef found across the Middle East), feta and a soft egg, and the other is “emerald” rice made green with pistachio pesto and accented with a soft-boiled egg.
Another aspect of the menu is helping customers to not have to fight to have their dietary preferences accommodated. Whether someone is gluten-free, vegetarian or vegan, there’s at least one menu item that is either already made to be that way or requires only a slight modification. There’s a vegan cereal option, for example, and the Moneycat Potatoes can be made vegan by simply leaving off the squiggle of kewpie mayo that is normally on top.
Morningstar is open seven days a week from 7 a.m. until 4 p.m. It's starting with a limited menu, but the cereal and heartier brunch-style dishes will be available by Friday. The rice and biscuit dishes are available now.
Since it closes early, it will also prove to be a prime spot for the occasional evening pop-up dinner or perhaps even a gaming night.